Zuli Breaks Out and Freaks Out
Ryan Camenzuli (a.k.a. Zuli) talks to TIDAL about the motivations behind his debut record, On Human Freakout Mountain, making sense of the human condition and using love to drive a narrative.
What was the root of the name of the album, On Human Freakout Mountain? It’s certainly a title that begs further questioning.
A couple of years ago, I was walking through the Brooklyn Museum and there was a photograph on the wall. It was a picture of these women holding these pots on their heads and it was a moment where the title kind of popped into my head when I saw it.
I was always thinking of the title and when I started writing songs for the album, I noticed a common theme of self-depravation. It kind of fit and I did not want to overthink it.
What you talk about on the album seems to have to do a lot with the fragility of life and being on the precipice of a moment where you have to look forward and reflect on your past, without losing yourself in nostalgia. Does that ring true at all?
Yes, absolutely. A lot of people have hit me up and commented that they most associate freaking out with detachment from the senses and ‘losing it.’ At times, the album lets loose and has some pretty intense moments. However, for me, freaking out has always been this solemn, depressing, private thing.
A lot of this music was written about and inspired by stories of people I’ve met and those who are close to me, reflected through the lens of my thoughts and experience. It definitely raises the point of, ‘What am I going to be doing for the next (x) amount of years?’ It explores the idea of making the most out of yourself and what you can do while you can.
As much as of all that is very internal, it has to be in some way instigated by stimulus and sensations.
Definitely. There are tons of external pressures on people. It ranges from the 15-year-old in high school to 45-year-old nearing 50. The world expects a lot of you and gives you a list of duties to fulfill, but a lot of people simply aren’t there and it’s such a false idea about how the world works.
Everyone feeds themselves in a certain way and wants to do with they love, but sometimes the harsh reality of it is that sometimes it doesn’t work out. I think a lot of the songs deal with that ‘What if?’ of that. There is tons of context at play with that.
Have you been thinking of this first record for a while? At some point, we are all just fans and think about what it would be like to have a record of our own, so I’m curious if any of those thoughts shaped the music you wanted to create on this first album.
Not necessarily. It’s been stewing around for a little bit. I was really excited about the EP and getting that out, but I wanted to make something more cohesive and with better production. It’s been a labor of love, but I wasn’t sweating it that much. It wasn’t this big undertaking. I’m not like Dr. Dre, or something, where it may never come out.
How was it recording the album outside of the city and in an undisturbed place, like the New York’s Hudson Valley?
I recorded a lot of it at my family’s house in Copake. I did some overdubs in Brooklyn, but being away from everything really helped the recording of the album.
I had a little less than half of the record written down and ready to go, but the other half was coming in as I was working on it. Sometimes an idea would just come by and I would let it simmer for a day or two and put all the elements together. Working out the material while I was there was an incredible way to create and experiment.
A lot of the source material for this record comes from a very personal and detailed place. Did you want to make it very autobiographical or did you want to leave it open?
I think it’s a mix. I want it to be personal and have people connect to my experience, but I don’t want to make it a play-by-play. I don’t think people will want to and ultimately, never really do, feel a connection to that kind of songwriting.
‘Neither Am I,’ for example, was about a friend of mine who was having these really terrible, crippling anxiety attacks. It was worrisome, but that song was exercise for those emotions. I am so close to him and thinking ‘Will this person I care about ever feel OK again?’ really impacted the writing of that song. What is stopping me from going into the same kind of fear? It welled up all of these thoughts and emotions. I’m still attached to a lot of these songs.
The notions of love explored on this album have a lot to do with having a push and pull relationship toward it. There is a suspicion and ambivalence towards it. I recall seeing you perform at a show in 2015, which your girlfriend attended. Between every two or so songs, you’d talk to her over the crowd and show such reverence and adoration for her. It was very endearing and gave the music that evening this warm feeling. How does love impact your songwriting and the person you are in general?
I find that in a lot of ways, I’ve used the notion of love as a vehicle to describe where I am at. It’s how I frame my emotions and personify my problems. I imagine these states of mind as a lover.
Like ‘Thinking of You,’ I can see people seeing that as a love song, but it’s more of a statement about where I was at that time. I was worried about what my next step was and if I was going to work on that food truck for the rest of my life.
Even ‘Blaze’ has this very strong love narrative to it, but it’s actually about a friend’s dog that passed away. It was less exciting to write a song that is explicitly about a dog and that’s the end of the story. Actually, the song is about toxic relationships and people have those everywhere: at work, with friends, with their lover. A lot of these songs have love at the center of the scenario, but it’s me using that narrative as storytelling to guide the album along.
The album has a tendency to fly by. Sonically, what permeates throughout the record is this tendency toward power-pop and psychedelia, with neither sound really bleeding into each other. What do you think is the cause of this sense of instant familiarity?
I couldn’t ever directly pull from an influence. In the past, I’d attempt to make a song with an intention to sound like someone and it would always sounds off.
I’ve always been a huge Animal Collective fan and they were definitely a big reason I approached music the way I do, the way they make this crazy kind of pop music. There’s always a mix of Unknown Mortal Orchestra and Dirty Projectors. I was really into Foxygen when I first started the project. The Beach Boys are important for harmonies.
I was certainly listening to some Rubber Soul at the time. For me, this project was the beginning of trying to write some semi-timeless, catchy, structurally solid pop music. I tried to incorporate that with psychedelic, whatever you may call it, and add my own flare.
After the release of the record and it now making its way through the world, do you feel done with this world of thought concerning the human condition and what motivates us?
Well, I’ve already started on the next album and working through ideas for it. I feel I covered a lot of ground with my first album and I’m super grateful that it all came together, that people are hearing it and into it.
But, I don’t think it’ll ever go away. I’ve said that I think feeling successful is almost a myth. If the album is good and we’re on tour in Europe, I’ll be super grateful and super humbled by it. I know myself, though, and I’ll always be looking forward and toward what is next in life.
I got a lot off my chest. I don’t think anyone feels like they are ‘done’ in life and, if you do, I don’t know if that’s a good thing at all. The beauty of life is working toward your next goal and enjoying yourself while doing it. I’m happy with the album, but these issues come back to people all the time.
Do you think that feeling is avoiding complacency or chasing what your vision of fulfillment may be?
I think I’m chasing. I don’t see any merit in avoidance. That sort of stuff comes back to creep on you in 10 or 20 years. I like asking myself questions regarding what kind of strides do I need to make as a human being, as well as an artist.
Sometimes, no matter what you do, you’re going to feel like shit. I’ve had those days, you’ve had those days and just to get past that, you have to ignore what drives you to complacency.
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